Extremists Vow To Disrupt Ukraine's Presidential Election

The elections could be a major step in bringing legitimacy to the Kiev government if it can navigate the pitfalls of pro-Russian extremists in the East and hardline Ukrainian nationalists in the West.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. This Sunday, Ukrainians head to the polls to elect a president after months of living under an interim government installed after mass protests caused the previous president to flee to Russia.

INSKEEP: This election could strengthen the government in Kiev but it will certainly be complicated.

MONTAGNE: Pro-Russian extremists in the East have vowed to prevent and disrupt the voting there. Ukrainian nationalists are also causing headaches elsewhere. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hours after a series of what were called coordinated deadly attacks against government forces in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, defense and National Security Council secretary Andriy Parubiy told reporters that he expects even more attacks before Sunday's vote is finished.

Nonetheless, he's confident that even in the restive east, most Ukrainians will be able to vote. He said soldiers, national guardsmen, extra police and civilian territorial defense battalions are all deployed to protect the public's right to choose a leader.

SECRETARY ANDRIY PARUBIY: (through translator) As of today, two-thirds of the election commission precincts report that they're ready for the vote in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. And that readiness is increasing, not decreasing.

KENYON: Western analysts see, or perhaps hope, that the tide is turning in favor of elections and negotiated reforms, and against violence and the carving up of Ukraine.

AMBASSADOR JOHN HERBST: So like everywhere, the wind seems to be coming out of the sails of the separatists.

KENYON: Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst says if recent comments by officials in Moscow are to be believed, even Russia seems prepared to work with the likely new president, billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko.

HERBST: I think there will be an effort by the separatists to disrupt the elections. I'm just not certain it's going to be very successful. Now, there may be some nasty pictures here or there - certainly around Slovyansk or in Donetsk or Luhansk - but not ultimately affecting well over 95 percent of the voters.

KENYON: Herbst is careful to add that's not because of any great strength among the Ukrainian security forces but because of a broadly shared interest among Ukrainians, even in the east, to keep the country whole, albeit with significantly decentralized powers.

Paul Quin Judge with the International Crisis Group says at this point who wins may not be the most important thing. Simply staging credible elections, he says, would be extremely good news for the interim government.

PAUL QUIN JUDGE: And it would be a stroke of enormous good luck for them, because unfortunately they have done more to exacerbate or allow the situation to degenerate in the south and east than they have done to improve it or respond to it.

KENYON: Judge says things may be improving of late, but much of the interim government's tenure has been marked by passivity, allowing pro-Russian activists and their patrons in Moscow to shape the debate.

JUDGE: They have not tried at any point to counteract the propaganda coming from Moscow or from the separatists in the south and east, about genocide in Donetsk, about fascism taking power in Kiev. And this has immensely complicated the situation.

KENYON: Another complication has been the persistent appearance of hardline Ukrainian nationalists on the political scene. Dmytro Yarosh, head of a group called Right Sektor, is also running for president, and he says Right Sektor activists are already operating in the east, with the territorial defense battalions supplementing the security forces.

DMYTRO YAROSH: (through translator) Yes, our activists are part of the territorial battalions. We provide protection in the east, but also in Kiev and elsewhere. We see ourselves as part of the government in the future, in these elections and the elections for parliament.

KENYON: Ukrainian analysts here say there's no evidence the Right Sektor is actually operating in the east. But what they call campaign bluster from a minor candidate echoes precisely what pro-Russian alarmists have been warning about for months. It's just one more example of the tricky path this damaged country is trying to walk. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Kiev.

MONTAGNE: And the Associated Press now reports that President Putin says Russia will respect the outcome of Sunday's vote in Ukraine.

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